Last night, the New Hampshire Union Leader convened 14 of the declared 17 republican presidential candidates at what might best be called a "pre-debate debate". In an anticipatory response to Fox News' decision to limit its own initial GOP debate - to be televised on August 5th - to the top ten candidates as gauged by national polls, The Union Leader organized the event in the First-In-The-Nation primary state. The debate was televised live by C-Span, and was also broadcast on local stations in early-voting states such as Iowa and South Carolina.
Longtime New Hampshire political reporter Jack Heath peppered the field with questions, with immigration-related issues topping the night's list. Based upon the candidates' own prior statements on the topic, there were few substantive surprises, but the presidential hopefuls did seem to be jockeying to stake out their respective places on the immigration-reform spectrum.
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry has hardened his rhetoric. He looked directly into the camera last night, and declared, “Mr. President, if you don’t secure the border, Texas will.” It is not clear how that initiative would impact the thousands of miles of non-Texas U.S. border.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum called for a 25% reduction in visas for lower-skilled workers. "Everyone else is dancing around it. I'm going to stand for the American worker," he said. Sen. Santorum did not elaborate on how cutting legal immigration relating to jobs which many employers struggle to fill from the domestic employment pool will help American workers.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio - appearing with other GOP senators via video-link, while in the nation's capital attending a vote to defund Planned Parenthood - emphasized border security and the erection of a more robust physical barrier, as prerequisites to any discussion of what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented non-citizens currently living in the United States.
Ohio Governor John Kasich took a more moderate approach overall, entertaining some sort of earned legalization for "law-abiding, God-fearing" undocumented individuals, while also calling for an end to "sanctuary cities".
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has extensive professional and personal experience with immigration, made the correlation between fixing our immigration system and achieving sustained economic growth. However, Gov. Bush also called for lowering family-based immigration. He did not provide additional details.
Current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump did not participate in the Union Leader debate. His anti-immigrant comments have created a significant public stir, with a mix of condemnation and praise for his blunt assessment of the role immigrants play in U.S. society.
For our part, we are mindful that mid-summer pre-primary campaign rhetoric is not likely to be the cornerstone of future substantive immigration policy reform. However, it is useful to see which way the political winds are blowing at the moment. And, it will prove even more useful to see just how the electorate responds to the candidates' positions on immigration, whether those candidates seem to be leading, or following, on this tremendously important domestic policy issue.
Ron Abramson is the principal and founder of abramson IMMIGRATION+ SOLUTIONS, a full-service immigration law firm which represents individuals, institutions, and businesses in New Hampshire and around the world. He often speaks and writes on immigration-related issues.
[Photo credit: NH Union Leader, online]